On my recent holiday, I walked a section of the Camino de Santiago that begins in Le Puy-en-Velay in France. The year before I walked more than 700 km across northern Spain from St. Jean Pied de Port to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James the apostle are said to be found. It’s a long walk. And yet the Camino is becoming increasingly popular, with more people walking the Way each year.
You might wonder why there are so many people who willing to take a month or more out of their lives and walk such long distances, often in great pain because of blisters on their feet, and a whole variety of other ailments. We go on pilgrimage because we are looking for something less. Less, in that we get to set aside much of the baggage of our daily lives. Literally that means we travel with nothing but a small backpack, maybe six kilograms, not much more than a change of clothes and some toiletries. But less also means fewer distractions. No job, no home to look after, no computer. More time spent in the present, less in the past or the future. You wake, you walk, you talk; you think, you eat, you sleep. A pilgrimage provides the opportunity for less.
But most of the pilgrims that I walked with were also looking for something more. That yearning, that elusive something more was expressed in a whole variety of ways. There were the concrete expressions: what career should I pursue, should I commit to this new relationship, should I leave home and family to start over in a new corner of the world. There were people at a crossroads in their lives: where do I go now that my loved one has died, my children are grown up, my job has ended. Then there were others who asked how can I lead a life that’s more meaningful, more peaceful, more joyful? Some felt that they were stuck in a rut and were looking for something new.
But one way or another, many of the pilgrims that I met walking the Camino were looking for something more. They wanted to know if there is more to life than they had experienced so far, more to life than what society or their culture or their family is telling them.
Sooner or later, most of us ask the same question. Is there more to life than this? And if there is how do we get it? We`re not talking about mere survival here. We`re talking about that something more. Life in its fullest, abundant life, the life we were created for and meant to live. Maybe, if we dare, we`re talking about a life so rich and so full of love and energy that it will even burst the usual constraints of death, space and time. How do we get that? How do we live that sort of life?
These are the questions that Jesus is responding to in today’s gospel. We call it the ‘bread of life’ discourse, but it’s not about bread, it’s about life. It’s about that elusive something more that so many of us are looking for in our lives.
We started this series of readings four weeks ago with the feeding of the 5000. Often we call this a miracle, but in the gospel of John, the author never uses that word. The great acts of power that Jesus does are not miracles, they are signs.
They point to a bigger truth, a more challenging truth. When the crowd finds Jesus a second time, they are looking for more food. But Jesus responds by pointing them towards the bigger truth. He wants to move the people from the search for bread to the search for life. But the path that Jesus offers from bread to life passes through a series of claims that he makes about himself. And that’s where many in the crowd get stuck. In response to the desire for more bread, Jesus says `I am the bread of life`, taking on the divine name `I am`. He tells the crowd that just as God sent manna to their ancestors in the wilderness, it is `the Father who sent me`. He claims to be from God, the bread `which came down from heaven` and that he will ascend once again to where he was before. These are big claims, claims which are summarized by the gospel writer John when he writes of Jesus as the Son of God, the Word who was God, who became flesh and dwelt among us. Theologians call this the Incarnation.
If you believe this, Jesus says, if you trust me on this, you will have life. Abundant life, eternal life, that life in its fullest sense that we all in one way or another are looking for. That`s what`s at stake. The something more that we`ve been searching for appears to be within sight, within our grasp.
But first you have to get past the claims.
And most of the crowd, and even many of Jesus’ own disciples can`t do it. They just can`t do it.
“This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” The people are offended.
Why is it so hard?
For two reasons I think. First because it is an affront, a shocking challenge to our understanding of God. And second because it calls us into a relationship that may seem too close for comfort.
How do you picture God?
The people listening to Jesus knew God as Yahweh, the almighty God who with a mighty hand and outstretched arm had brought their ancestors as slaves out of Egypt and into the land of Israel, establishing a covenant with them and making them his people.
They knew that the dwelling place of Yahweh was the Temple in Jerusalem. Not that the Temple could contain God, even, as Solomon says in our Old Testament reading, even the heavens and the highest heaven cannot contain the Lord, but yet it is the Temple that is filled with the glory of the Lord and is the place of God’s presence on earth, and every year the people would make their pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to stand in God’s presence.
To these people, the claim that Jesus, this man from Nazareth standing in front of them, was actually the Son of God, the human person in whom the presence of God dwells, the one who came down from heaven and would ascend to where he was before, well that was a scandalous claim. It threatened to turn their whole understanding of God upside down.
This is the claim of the Incarnation. We’ve had 2000 years to get used to it. But is that claim any less scandalous to us today? How do you picture God?
We might think of God as Creator. Perhaps we use philosophical concepts, God as supreme-being. Perhaps you think of God as Spirit, invisible, present, breathing life into our physical world. Whatever understanding you have, how do you reconcile that with the claim that, to use the words of Saint Paul, in the human person of Jesus, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell?
The claim that Jesus makes is hard first of all because it challenges our understanding of who God is.
But the second reason that it is hard is because we are being called into a relationship, a relationship with this God who is found in the person of Jesus. Jesus is offering us life, but it is not life all wrapped up in a box and ready for take-out. We can’t just grab it and walk away. It is the life we seek but it is found through relationship with him. You abide in me, and I’ll abide in you.
We are being invited into a relationship, with all that a relationship in its fullest sense entails: commitment, fidelity, intimacy, mutuality, vulnerability, knowing and being known, sacrificial love, all the good stuff and all the hard stuff.
Do you think you can handle the intimacy of a relationship with God? Can you handle the commitment of a relationship with God?
Do you get why most of the crowd disappears?
I have to think that Jesus is disappointed when the crowd walks away. He turns to the twelve, his closest friends, and says to them, “do you also wish to go away?” It is Peter who speaks.
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Why does Peter choose to stay when others decide to leave?
I think that Peter is a seeker, just like the rest of us. He’s been looking for that something more, searching for that abundant life that each of us wants. I suppose that`s why he left his fishing boat to follow Jesus in the first place. And as he followed Jesus, as he stuck with him month after month, as they walked together, as their relationship grew, Peter must have experienced something. He must have had at least a taste of that abundant life that he was seeking.
And so when Jesus offers that life through relationship with him, for Peter that amazing claim has a ring of truth about it. Jesus has the words of eternal life, and so Peter is going to trust him on that because he’s experienced it, at least in some measure. And so he’s going to stick around. I admire that persistence.
And maybe, like Peter, that’s what we need to do too. We just need to stick around, to walk with Jesus long enough to experience the life that he has to offer, to experience the something more.
Kind of like a pilgrimage.
Homily. Yr A P21 August 26, 2018. St. Albans
Readings: 1 Kings 8.22-30, 41-43; Ps 84; Eph 6.10-20; Jn 6.56-69